By now, nearly every urban planner should be familiar with the term walkability as well as its rationale and numerous community benefits. Despite this, there are times during the winter months when walkability can be anything but easy due to snow and particularly ice. Having fallen twice last winter, I can attest to the fact that it hurts and also makes one less apt to walk in slick conditions despite the clear health benefits and refreshing winter air.
So how do we improve walkability during the winter months? Several options may be available, though not all of them are easy solutions. They are presented in no particular order of preference. Any additions to the list would be most welcome.
1. Sidewalk clearing regulations – these are fairly common in northern latitudes. Clean the snow off your sidewalk within 24 hours. Sounds simple enough, but enforcement can be an issue as not every property owner complies. It also does not address the freeze and thaw effect which can produce very slippery and treacherous sidewalks. This is particularly a problem in areas that remain shaded and cannot get sunlit warmth on them.
Added option – add a provision to the municipal code which requires property owners to also apply ice/snow melt to sidewalks. Sand is virtually worthless for freeze and thaw and eventually becomes trapped within the ice.
2. Heated sidewalks – this may sound like science fiction, but in the long run placing heating coils or steam pipes under sidewalks during reconstruction projects may be less costly than maintaining them after every snowfall or handling slip and fall lawsuits. While it is unlikely that heated sidewalks would be viable across the entire community, certain areas could benefit from them like business and shopping districts, near schools, or near hospitals and care centers.
- The lovely city of Holland, Michigan has employed heated sidewalks in its central business district for a number of years. Here is a weblink for more information.
3. Windbreaks – provided they do not impede traffic and pedestrian visibility, landscape windbreaks may be an option for limiting snow from drifting across sidewalks while also adding a visual amenity to the route. The windbreaks would have the added benefit of providing some added barrier from winter’s biting wind chill.
4. Building and site design – situating structures and landscaping in a manner which reduces shading across sidewalks and increases radiant heat from sunlight would allow Mother Nature to aid in snow and ice removal along sidewalks. It is amazing how much warm the winter sun can produce when given the opportunity.
5. Buffer strips – incorporating a five foot wide green buffer strip between the street and the sidewalk provides a catchment area for snow being plowed off the street without occupying the sidewalks themselves.
6. Enclosed walkways – Minneapolis has miles of skywalks in its downtown district. While not necessary the most economical or streetscape friendly approach, the skywalks certainly allow for increased pedestrian movement in the heart of the winter. Underground walkways may be another viable option in certain areas. Purdue University has a number of under ground connections on campus that prove to be very handy in mid-winter or on rainy days throughout the year.